North's spies allegedly on NIS's radar for over 2 decadesThe four people in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, currently under formal investigation by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for allegedly working for North Korea, have been on the spy agency's radar for 21 years, raising questions on why it took so long to bring the group into custody.
Furthermore, it was revealed, from a source with knowledge of the investigation on the condition of anonymity, that the intelligence service tracked individuals in the group, called the North Chungcheong Comrades’ Association, meeting North Korean Cultural Exchange Bureau agents abroad on multiple occasions and bringing the funds they received back to the South for four years.
But the NIS launched a full investigation only this year, taking into custody three of the four individuals after their warrants were approved by the Cheongju District Court on Aug. 2.
The individuals, two men and two women, have been identified only as 57-year-old construction worker Park, 50-year-old Yoon, 50-year-old Park and 47-year-old Son. Son is the only member of the group who remains under investigation without detention.
The NIS has kept tabs on the four since 2000, shortly after they joined the New Morning Labor Working Youth Association which was formed in October 1998.
Park and the other three individuals held a press conference in September 2000 with the National Solidarity Movement for the Abolition of the National Security Law and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). At the press conference, he claimed the NIS fabricated espionage cases against workers in Cheongju.
At the time, the NIS countered, saying it was engaged in normal internal investigation activities but never fabricated espionage operations to ensnare anyone. In the end, the case was closed without anyone being prosecuted.
The suspects, however, denied the allegations, calling the spy agency’s long-term investigation a form of illegal surveillance. Son, the only suspect who remains under investigation without physical detention, told the JoongAng Ilbo in an interview, “The current case is the result of the NIS conducting illegal surveillance for more than 20 years.” He added, “All evidence has been fabricated or exaggerated.”
Legal experts have suggested that the launch of a formal NIS investigation was delayed due to political external pressure. While the sensitive nature of public security investigations and espionage cases can lead to extended periods of surveillance where formal charges are delayed to track contacts and associates of suspected spies, it is unprecedented for the intelligence service to conduct surveillance for two decades before beginning a formal investigation.
Questions also remain regarding the fact that the spy agency did not immediately commence a formal investigation after securing evidence of the individuals meeting North Korean agents, including photos of them meeting people from the North’s Cultural Exchange in hotels, restaurants, even Starbucks cafes in China and Cambodia and sharing taxi rides between 2017 and 2018.
Responding to questions, an NIS official said, “We cannot confirm the details of the ongoing investigation.”
BY MICHAEL LEE, KIM MIN-JOONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]